It takes a big man to make fun of himself, to take his failures, hold them up for everyone to see, and say, as Chandler Bing might: "Could I BE any more ridiculous?"
So when the president of the United States -- the most powerful man in the world, used to always getting his way, always being the smartest guy in the room, and always the one who gets the last word -- does it, we take note. It's a lesson in self-deprecation all Americans can learn from; Hey, the president mocks himself, so maybe I should just lighten up a little bit on myself, too.
Once a year, at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, the president drops in to deliver a short comedy bit heavy on self deprecation. President Reagan was a master, goofing on himself as a slow-witted Hollywood rube; George H.W. Bush stepped out of his stiff patrician bearing to hit himself with a few zingers; Bill Clinton singed himself badly after his affair with a White House intern ("How was your week?").
And George W. Bush was, frankly, a master. Derided like Reagan, a slow witted rube, but this time from Texas, Bush once brought an impersonator on stage to mock him nonstop, for everything from his marble-mouthed delivery to his low approval rating. Mastery.
But President Obama each year proves he just isn't man enough to point his super-intellectual humor at himself. Sure, he almost always delivers a burn or two at himself, but he always goes on a scorched-earth campaign after that, viciously ripping any and all critics who have taken him on.
"It is great to be back. What a year, huh? I usually start these dinners with a few self-deprecating jokes. After my stellar 2013, what can I possibly talk about?" he said right at the top of his 20-minute routine.
He was, of course, going to mock the dismal rollout of Obamacare. But in his very first joke, he did so not by targeting himself, but by going after 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"At one point, things got so bad, the 47 percent called Mitt Romney to apologize," he said to applause and laughter from the heavily liberal crowd. He made two other jokes, both weak, about the rollout, and ... done. "Rather than dwell on the past, I would like to pivot to this dinner," he said. End of self deprecation.
But he would go on to eviscerate his foes, bring up Kenya and "birthers" not once but twice, delight in charging Republicans with racism (which also filled a lengthy serious passage at the end of his comedy bit), target two private citizens, the Koch brothers, and muse about "what did we do to piss off Chris Christie so bad?" (Classy.)
He seemed positively obsessed with the Republicans who are going to vie for his job. Like this line, talking about the wonders of snowboarding in the Winter Olympics : "We haven’t seen somebody pull a 180 that fast since Rand Paul disinvited that disgruntled rancher from this dinner."
"As a general rule, things don’t end well if the sentence starts, 'Let me tell you something I know about the negro.' You don’t really need to hear the rest of it. Just a tip for you. Don't start your sentence that way," he said to laughter, apparently seeking to connect Paul with embattled Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
He targeted Sen. Ted Cruz too: "But I have not given up the idea of working with Congress. In fact, two weeks ago, Senator Ted Cruz and I, we got a bill done together and I have to say the signing ceremony was something special. We got a picture of it I think." Cut to Obama signing a bill at his desk, a disgruntled Cruz behind him, a hideous Devil with horns on the other side, a sign reading "HELL" covered with snow and ice.
And he took aim at Texas Gov. Rick Perry: Obama said Perry had followed a move by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and named a school after the president. Cut to a picture of a school sign: "Raging Socialist High School, 'Home of the Fighting Chomskys,' Bake Sale Tuesday, All Proceeds to Be Divided Equally."
Throughout the monologue, the 2,500 people in the Washington Hilton howled their approval at the over-the-top attacks. Later, when comedian Joal McHale made a Nancy Pelosi joke, there were only groans.
But Obama knows that the highly partisan crowd at the annual event will eat up his vindictive diatribe, and each year, it does. So every year, Obama makes it all just a bit more vicious. Still, that seems to be just the problem: A man who can't laugh at himself is a man devoid of humor, and nearly always, bitter and petty.
The transcript, via The Washington Post:
Thank You. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Thank you. Everyone, please have a seat. Have a seat.
Before I get started, can we get the new presidential set up out here? [Laughter] It has worked before. [Laughter] That is more like it.
It is great to be back. What a year, huh? I usually start these dinners with a few self-deprecating jokes. After my stellar 2013, what can I possibly talk about? [Laughter]
I admit it — last year was rough. Sheesh. [Laughter]
At one point, things got so bad, the 47 percent called Mitt Romney to apologize. [Laughter]
Of course, we rolled out Healthcare.gov. That could have gone better. [Laughter]
In 2008, my slogan was “Yes, we can.” In 2013, my slogan was “Control, alt, delete.” [Laughter]
On the plus side, they did turn the launch of Healthcare.gov into one of the year’ s biggest movies. [Laughter] But rather than dwell on the past, I would like to pivot to this dinner.
Let’s welcome our headliner this evening, Joel McHale. [Applause] On “Community,” Joel plays a preening, self-obsessed narcissist, so this dinner must be a real change of pace for you. [Laughter] I want to thank the White House Correspondents Association for hosting us here tonight. I am happy to be here, even though I am a little jet-lagged from my trip to Malaysia. The lengths we have to go to to get CNN coverage these days. [Laughter] [applause]
I think they are still searching for their tables. [Laughter] [applause]
MSNBC is here. [Applause] They are a little overwhelmed. They’ve never seen an audience this big before. [Laughter]
Look, everyone is trying to keep up with this incredibly fast-changing media landscape. For example, I got a lot of grief on cable news for promoting Obamacare to young people on “Between Two Ferns.” But that’s what young people like to watch. And to be fair, I am not the first person on television between two potted plants. [Laughter] [applause]
Sometimes I do feel disrespected by you reporters. But that’s OK. Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman is here tonight, and he gave me some great tips on how to handle it. Jake Tapper, don’t you ever talk about me like that! I am the best president in the game! What do you think, Richard, was that good? [Laughter] A little more feeling next time. [Laughter]
While we are talking sports, just last month, a wonderful story. An American won the Boston Marathon for the first time in 30 years. [Applause] Which was inspiring and only fair since a Kenyan has been president for the last six. We have to even things out.
We have some other athletes here tonight, including Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Jamie Anderson is here. We are proud of her. Incredibly talented young lady. Michelle and I watch the Olympics, we cannot believe what these folks do. Death-defying feats. We haven’t seen somebody pull a 180 that fast since Rand Paul disinvitied that disgruntled rancher from this dinner. [laughter]
As a general rule, things don’t end well if the sentence starts, “Let me tell you something I know about the negro.” You don’t really need to hear the rest of it. [Laughter] Just a tip for you. Don’ t start your sentence that way. [Laughter]
Speaking of Rand Paul, — [laughter] Colorado legalized marijuana this year. An interesting social experiment. I do hope it does not lead to a bunch of paranoid people who think the federal government is out to get them and listening to their phone calls. [Laughter] That would be a problem. [Laughter]
And speaking of conservative heroes, the Koch brothers bought a table here tonight. But they used a shadowy right-wing organization as a front. Hello, Fox News. [Laughter] [applause] I’m just kidding. Let’s face it, Fox, you’ l miss me when I’ m gone. [Laughter] It will be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya. [Laughter] [applause]
A lot of us really are concerned about the way that money is influencing our politics. I remember when a super pack with me was buying Marlboro 100s instead of regulars. [Laughter] Of course, now that it is 2014, Washington is obsessed on the midterms. Folks are saying that with my sagging poll numbers, my fellow democrats don’t really want me campaigning with them. I don’t think that is true, although I did notice the other day that Sasha needed a speaker at career day and she invited Bill Clinton. [Laughter] I was a little hurt by that.
Both sides are doing whatever it takes to win. The ruthless game. Republicans — this is a true story. Republicans actually brought in a group consultant to teach their candidates how to speak to women. This is true. I don’t know if it’ll work for women, but I understand America’s teenage boys are signing up to run for the Senate in droves. [Laughter] [applause]
Anyway, while you guys focus on the horse race, I’m going to do what I do. I will be focused on everyday Americans. Just yesterday I read a heartbreaking letter. I get letters from folks around the country every day. I get 10 that I read. This one got me. A Virginia man who’s been stuck in the same part-time job for years. No respect from his boss. There was no chance to get ahead. I really wish Eric Cantor would stop writing me. You can just pick up the phone, Eric. [Laughter] [applause]
I am feeling sorry, believe it and not, for the Speaker of the House. These days, the House Republicans give John Boehner a harder time than they give me. Which means orange really is the new black. [Laughter] [applause]
But I have not given up the idea of working with Congress. In fact, two weeks ago, Senator Ted Cruz and I, we got a bill done together and I have to say the signing ceremony was something special. We got a picture of it I think. [Laughter]
Look, I know. Washington seems more dysfunctional than ever. Gridlock has gotten so bad in this town, you have to wonder what did we do to piss off Chris Christie so bad? [Laughter]
One issue, for example, we haven’t been able to agree on is unemployment insurance. Republicans continue to refuse to extend it. You know what, I am beginning to think they have a point. If you don’t want to get paid while not working, you should have to run for Congress just like everybody else. [Laughter] [applause]
There is one thing that keeps Republicans busy. They have tried more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare. Despite that, 8 million people signed up for healthcare in the first open enrollment. [Applause] Which does lead one to ask, how well does Obamacare have to work before you don’t want to repeal it? What if everyone’s cholesterol drops to 120? What if your yearly checkup came with tickets to a Clippers’ game? Not the old Donald Sterling Clippers, the new Oprah Clippers. What if it gave Mitch McConnell a pulse? What is it going to take?
Anyway, this year I have promised to use more executive actions to get things done without Congress. My critics call this the imperial presidency. Truth is I just show up every day at my office and do my job. We have a picture of this, I think? [Laughter] [applause]
You would think they would appreciate a more assertive approach, considering that the new conservative darling is non other than Vladimir Putin. Last year, Pat Buchanan said Putin’s headed straight for the Nobel Peace Prize. He said this. Now I know it sounds crazy but to be fair they give those to just about anybody these days. It could happen. [Laughter] [applause]
But it’s not just Pat, Rudy Giuliani said, “Putin is what you would call a leader. Mike Huckabee and Shawn Hannity keep talking about his bare chest, which is kind of weird. [Laughter] [applause] Look it up. They talk about it a lot. [Laughter]
It is strange to think that I have just two and a half years left in this office. Everywhere I look there are reminders that I only hold this job temporarily. [Laughter] But, it is a long time between now and 2016. And anything can happen. You may have heard the other day that Hillary had to dodge a flying shoe at a press conference. [Laughter]
I love that picture.
Regardless of what happens, I’ve run my last campaign. I’m beginning to think about my legacy. Some of you know that Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced that he’s naming a high school after me in Chicago. I was even more flattered to hear that Rick Perry, who is here tonight, is doing the same thing in Texas. Take a look. [Laughter] Thank you, Rick. It means a lot to me.
I intend to enjoy all the free time that I will have. George W. Bush took up painting after he left office. It inspired me to take up own artistic side. I am sure we have a shot of this. Maybe not. The joke does not work without the slide. [Laughter] Oh well. Assume that it was funny. [Laughter] Does this happen to you Joel? It does, OK.
On a serious note, tonight reminds us that we are lucky to live in a country where reporters can give a head of state a hard time on a daily basis. And once a year give him or her the chance at least to return the favor. We also know that not every journalist or photographer or crew member is so fortunate. Even as we celebrate the free press tonight, our thoughts are with those in places around the globe like Ukraine and Afghanistan and Syria and Egypt. People who risk everything. In some cases even give their lives to report the news. And what tonight also reminds us is that the fight for full and fair access goes beyond the chance to ask a question.
As Steve mentioned, decades ago an African-American who wanted to cover his or her president might be barred from journalism school. Burdened by Jim Crow. And once in Washington banned from press conferences. After years of effort, black editors and publishers began meeting with FDR’s press secretary, Steve Irving. They met with the president himself, who declared that a black reporter would get a credential. Even when Harry McAlpin made history as the first African-American to attend a presidential news conference, he was not always welcomed by the other reporters. But he was welcomed by the president, who told him, “I’m glad to see you McAlpin.” I’m very happy to have you here.” Now that sentiment might have worn off once Harry asked him a question or two. And Harry’s battles continued, but he made history. We are so proud of Sherman and his family for being here tonight and the White House Correspondents Association for creating the scholarship in Harry’s name. [Applause] For over 100 years, even as the White House Correspondents Association has told the story of America’s progress, you’ve lived it too. Gradually allowing equal access to women, minorities, gays and Smericans with disabilities. Yes, radio and television and Internet reporters as well. Through it all you’ve helped make sure that even as societies change, our fundamental commitment to the interaction between those who govern and those who ask questions doesn’t change. And as Jay will attest, it’s a legacy that you carry on enthusiastically every single day. Because this is the 100th anniversary of the Correspondents Association, I actually recorded an additional brief video thanking you for all your hard work. Can we run the video?
What is going on? I was told this would work. Does anybody know how to fix this? Thank you. [Laughter] Do you have it?
Kathleen Sebelius: I got this. I see it all the time. There. That should work.
Congratulations to the White House Correspondents. Here is to 100 more years.
Thank you very much, everybody.. Bless you. [Applause] [laughter] [laughter] [applause]